Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Big Stink over Malawi Farting Ban ... a racist meme?

An amusing story has been making the rounds: Malawi is banning public farting!

I have to confess that I fell for this story when I first saw it. But then I thought, "Wait a second ... you're supposed to be the meme expert. Are you falling for this without even a little skepticism?" This Malawi farting-ban story has all the earmarks of a classic viral meme. I suspected there was more myth than truth in this amusing story.

And I was right: it's just an amusing myth that grew out of a twisted version of the truth. But the success of the "Malawi farting-ban meme" turns out to have some interesting racist overtones.

I don't know about you, but I didn't even know exactly where Malawi is. I had to look it up – it's in southeast Africa.

Just a couple mouse-clicks revealed the true story, which is far less interesting than the farting-ban meme. The real story (from the BBC) is that Malawi is trying to curb air pollution. The language of the bill reads:
"Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way shall be guilty of a misdemeanour."
It is probably aimed at small factories, auto paint shops, leather tanneries, slaughterhouses and all sorts of other businesses that give off nasty odors and dangerous chemicals. In other words, it's exactly like hundreds of laws throughout America and Europe.

Great idea, right? But along came Justice Minister George Chaponda (an attorney), who thought the law might also ban public flatulence. And that was the birth of the viral meme. Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga ridiculed Mr. Chaponda's interpretation, but it was too late.

The Register in the UK picked up the story and basically rewrote it. They emphasized flatulence, and carefully left out the part about the Soliciter General's denial.Before you could say "excuse me!" it was all over Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere. "Big Stink over Malawi Farting Ban" was everywhere.

So why, you might ask, do I claim this is a racist meme? Good question.

Viral memes have to have some key elements. They must be fascinating and edgy. They must be short and sweet (or in this case, at least have an aroma!). And they must be believable.

Imagine if this story had been, "New York bans public farting!" It might have garnered modest interest, but everyone's first reaction would have been "That's bogus." People would immediately spot a fake. It's missing the believable component of a viral meme.

But Malawi? What do you know about Malawi? You might know it's in Africa. You'd probably guess that it's a third-world country with high illiteracy and poor education. And you might even have the idea that they're slightly uncivilized and backwards. And if the story has photos that includes non-white people from this backwards, semi-literate third-world country that you've contrived in your mind, why, it becomes believable!

That's why I included "racism" in the title. This story spread like wildfire through America and Europe because it was about an African nation.

The truth is that Malawi is indeed facing some real challenges. They have a modern two-party democracy and a modest military that's controlled by the democratically elected government. Malawi has nice climate and lots of agriculture. But they are one of the most densely populated countries in the world and have been devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. They have a low life expectancy and high infant mortality.

Malawi faces many challenges. But they're not ignorant savages. Contrary to the stereotypes that let this meme go viral, their ministers and politicians are intelligent and well educated, and they are trying to bring the same sort of environmental protection to their country that we already have.


  1. Oh, this is too funny! I wonder how far this bad version of the game of "Telephone" will go.

  2. The sensationalist nature of news, especially in the age of "firsts", is concerning. It wasn't until someone pointed it out to me recently that I realized Huffington post often has blatantly misleading and tantalizing titles to get those page-clicks when the story within isn't quite as shocking as the title would have led you to believe.

    I don't know if its racist so much as it's classist. Western society is pretty proud of itself, so it easily believes that there could be some pretty stupid laws in third-world countries that we only see in the news occasionally.

    None so stupid as specifically banning Sharia law, but surely, someone out there is banning flatulence, right?

  3. JL – I'm guilty of sensationalist headlines too. The difference between a good headline and an accurate one can mean 10x more readers. Sad but true. And I'm guilty at the other end, clicking on provocative headlines and ignoring less sensational ones. That's life I suppose.

  4. I don't mind an interesting hook; it's kind of an art in and of itself. I just don't want a misleading one, like "Asteroid could hit earth in 2036, say Nasa scientests", when the chance is admitted as 1 in 250,000.

    Sure, it COULD, but the odds are pretty darn low.

  5. I thought something smelled about that story.

  6. The justice minister thought the law could legally read on public farting the way it was written, and as far as that goes, he's probably right. If the rest of the world thought that this was screamingly funny, what's wrong with that?

  7. The Register is racist? Hmmm. Sounds about right. Oops. I just passed a viral judgement. I wonder if it'll catch on?

  8. I knew something about that story smelled funny


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